Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Postcard 29: Palmyra (Arabic: تدمر Tadmor‎)

House in the desert on the way to Palmyra
Photograph: © Mary Roberts 2009

'To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive ...'
[R. L. Stevenson Virginibus Puerisque iv. 190, 1881]

I am very grateful to Mary Roberts for the opportunity to post this photograph. It shows the domed beehive-shaped buildings in the Syrian desert, the flecks of cloud, the shadows and the mountains beyond. Palmyra is - as yet - off-limits.

I first 'encountered' the site of Palmyra when I was taking a course in Roman Cities as part of my degree in Classical Studies at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. I had spent my teenage years in East Anglia, with its wide skies and panoramic views, but nothing had prepared me for the scale of the desert and of the Roman buildings (seen, alas, only on slides in a lecture theatre) that make up the extraordinary city, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Palmyra had long been an oasis settlement on the caravan route that linked Persia with the Mediterranean ports in Syria and Phoenicia. The Silk Road conjures up all kinds of exotic images in our minds. The Romans came in the first century AD, and added their mark. The settlement had been part of King Solomon's kingdom in earlier days. The remains of the Roman theatre can be seen today.

There has been great excitement recently over the discovery of remains from the Hellenistic city on the site. It is known from the archaeological finds that dromedaries, pigs, sheep and pottery all played a part in city life during this era.

You may be wondering why I have written about Palmyra on this 'Landscape and Literature' blog. The answer lies in the person of Zenobia, the third century Queen of Palmyra who 'claimed' descent from Queen Cleopatra of Egypt and Queen Dido of Carthage. Zenobia followed in the footsteps of previous Syrian and Abyssinian queens like the Queen of Sheba (linked article by Michael Wood). She could be described as the Boudicca of the city in the sense that she was a warrior queen, intent on leading her people against the Romans. Zenobia is mentioned in the texts of many ancient historians. Pollio refers to her beauty. She features in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in The Monk's Tale (see Cenobia) and also in Masque of Queens by Ben Jonson (1610). Giovani Paisiello wrote an opera, Zenobia in Palmyra, and she is the subject of novels like The Queen of the East by Alexander Baron.

For more tales from the desert, please take a whirl around the Carnival of the Arid site at Coyote Crossing. Carnival of the Arid 4 begins in early May 2009.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Postcard 28: Sir Isaac NEWTon at Aberglasney?

Aberglasney, home of the poet, John Dyer
a) Newt in the pond
(we thought we saw an eel or elver, too)
b) Looking for early bluebells
c) Magnolia bursting out

Spring and summer are merging into one, it seems, as the warm sunshine continues in this neck of the Aberglasney woods. It will not be long before the bluebells unfurl their shimmering blue carpet over Pigeon House Wood, home to treecreepers and - of course - pigeons. Gillian Clarke, in her Aberglasney sonnet sequence of 'Nine Green Gardens', referred to the lords-and-ladies in her poem about this part of the garden. The stream is currently lined with what I think is Yellow Skunk Cabbage (Lysichiton americanus), a variety of less-than-sweet-smelling arum lily from the Pacific northwest region.

How many of you remember the tortoise, Mr Alderman Ptolemy and his newt friend, Sie Isaac Newton from 'The Tale of Jeremy Fisher' by Beatrix Potter? Jeremy Fisher invited them to dinner, and since fish was off the menu that evening, he offered them roasted grasshopper and ladybird sauce!

We were delighted to spot a couple of newts in the Aberglasney pond on our most recent visit. We also thought that we saw a small eel. Did you know that we have three native species of newt in the UK? - the Smooth Newt, the Palmate Newt and the Great Crested Newt.

'See her woods, where Echo talks,
Her gardens trim, her terrace walks ...'

John Dyer,
The Country Walk

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Postcard 27: Spurn Point Surprise

Views of Spurn Head
Do click the second picture for a closer view (not for the squeamish!)

Those who have read previous postcards will know that I enjoy visiting places linked with literature. This postcard is a bit different, because it links a peninsula with a composer.

I had long wanted to visit Spurn Head, with its wild beauty. It is in many ways a liminal place on the edge of nowhere, and yet it is so close to Hull and the busy shipping area of the Humber.

Ralph Vaughan Williams composed 'Spurn Point', his Andante sostenuto, in 1926 as one of Six Studies in English Folk Song for Cello.

We drove through low-lying land and eventually spotted the black-and-white striped lighthouse. As we headed out along the spit of land, with saltmarsh estuary on our right and the open sea on our left, I spotted web after web on the furze bushes that lined the road. When we had parked the car, I went to examine them, thinking that perhaps they were going to be nests for an unusual species of bird. It became all too apparent that my assumption was way out, for they were utterly heaving with young caterpillars. I asked a man sporting a deerstalker and a pair of binoculars, who told me that I should have read my Yorkshire Wildlife Trust ticket, since it contained a warning about the toxic nature of the barbed hairs of the caterpillars of the native Brown-Tail Moth (Euproctis Chrysorrhoea).

Our ticket informed us that the creatures emerge in spring from their white webs to feed on sea buckthorn. Apparently they shed their skins, releasing the hairs before 'pupating and flighting' as adult moths.

As if the moths weren't interesting enough, we learned that an apparently unringed white stork had been spotted that afternoon.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Postcard 26: No wombles of Wombleton

We have just returned from Yorkshire, where we found ourselves in the village of Wombleton, not far from Nunnington Hall. It made me think about the wombles of Wimbledon Common. As we drove along, all the Mike Batt Womble songs came flooding into my head ... 'you're invited to a ping-pong ball', 'It was early one morning; the fish were jumping high', 'Cousin Yellowstone is returning' ... and I began to wonder whether there was, in fact, any womble link with this Yorkshire village.

I have now done a little web research, and realize that the name 'womble' came from the lips of Beresford's young daughter, Kate, as she ran about on Wimbledon Common.

In the course of my investigations, I came across a fascinating feature from The Times (11 August 2007) on Elisabeth Beresford, creator of the Wombles. Did you know, for example, that Walter de la Mare was her godfather and that Eleanor Farjeon was her godmother? Here's to the Wombles for leading the way in recycling and 'green thinking' for the younger generation!